Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Book Review: Al Capone Throws Me a Curve

If you’re familiar with the Tales from Alcatraz series by Gennifer Choldenko, her newest release, AL CAPONE THROW ME A CURVE will be a welcome continuation. If you aren’t familiar with the series, you should correct this very soon.

At the center of the action is Moose Flanagan, a young teenager on the verge of starting high school with dreams of making the baseball team. Moose’s father works in the corrections system so his family is one of several who live on Alcatraz Island. Moose’s parents have a lot to cope with from the politics of the island and the people who live there, trying to raise a family when everything is a ferry ride away, and caring for Moose’s older sister Natalie, unrecognized as affected by autism in the 1930s, when the story takes place.

Moose is a typical kid surrounded by an interesting cast of characters, both from his life tied to the prison and away from it, each operating with their own agenda — some of which are easier for him to read than others. He has a lot to responsibilities placed on him and difficult decisions to make as the story unfolds, all of which speak to the maturity of the character. His love of baseball is still front and center as one of his largest motivations throughout the book, keeping him solidly anchored as the kid that he is. Moose's relationship with Natalie is shown as both protective and loving. Knowing first-hand how acknowledging and accepting differences and valuing diversity have become important parts of character education in schools today, this relationship would be a wonderful example for kids to read about. 

The dialogue and Moose’s narration are refreshingly straightforward, sidestepping the contemporary affectations common in much of middle grade, which makes it all come across as even more genuine. The strong and measured descriptive language establish a sense of place in each location of the overall setting, making the reader feel they would recognize areas they may have never seen before. 

Without giving anything away, the events of the book all come together in the end with very high stakes for Moose and his family, in what will be a surprising challenge for a middle grade audience but completely realistic in the context, and skillfully written. AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE was the kind of book that pulled me forward to finish reading in a day, though I wish I’d allowed myself to spend more time with it. It’s a good thing there are three earlier books in the series I can always revisit! 

To help us celebrate the release of her new book, author Gennifer Choldenko agreed to answer some questions about the Tales of Alcatraz series and her other work!


Thanks for giving us the chance to ask you a few questions, Gennifer! To start with, I think you should know one of my students recently said AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS is the best book ever written. What's it been like spending so many years working with a series that has such widespread popularity?

The best book ever?  Wow, please tell your student thank you from me!  And thank you for inviting me to be a part of your blog. (Side note - I did pass on that thank you, and her jaw dropped open when I said it.)

One of my greatest pleasures is when a teacher brings me his or her highlighted, underlined, dogeared copy of Al Capone Does My Shirts. What an honor it is to sign those books!  And of course, I love getting letters from readers.  My favorite kid reader letters encourage me to keep writing.  “You are a good writer.  Me and my friends think you should write another book.”  Though my all-time favorite letter went like this:  “I tried to write to Roald Dahl but he was dead.  So, I had to write to you instead.”

I've read that AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE could be the last book of the series. How much of the series did you have planned from the beginning? Were you always hoping or intending the story would become a series, or did those plans evolve as opportunities and new ideas came along?

When I started work on Al Capone Does My Shirts I had been trying for six years to get a second book published.  I called myself a “one trick pony”, because it really looked like: Moonstruck: The True Story of the Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon was the only book I’d ever have published.  While I was researching and writing Al Capone Does My Shirts  I thought that this was a bigger idea than I could fit into one book.  But the idea of writing a series of unpublished books, seemed crazy, even for me.  After I’d been working on Al Capone Does My Shirts for a year, Penguin bought my first novel: Notes from a Liar and Her Dog.  But even then, a series seemed out of reach.  So, no I didn’t plan out the series.  I took it one book at a time. 

If AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE does turn out to be the final book of the series, how do you feel about bringing it to an end?

This series has definitely been a labor of love.  The books have been challenging to create, but I’ve gotten so much out of writing them.  I feel like all the books in the Tales from Alcatraz are a part of me I’m not sure I’m ready to let go of.   

I'm surprised (and impressed) that you've been able to sustain this series while writing so many other books as well. Has your writing process been the same regardless of the title, or was there anything different in the way you approached writing the Tales from Alcatraz books?

Every book comes to me in a different way and that changes my process.  Generally, though, research is involved.  For me, research is like putting Miracle-Gro on my ideas.  Since I live in the San Francisco Bay area, I have spent many many days on Alcatraz.  I’ve worked on the island.  I’ve read every book I can get my hands on.  I’ve interviewed dozens of people who were guards, prisoners and the sons and daughters of guards.  I am a member of the Alcatraz Alumni Association.  I’ve been to every Alcatraz Alumni Day on the island. 

One of the great privileges of writing these books has been the opportunity to do first-hand research.  When you write historical fiction, it is a luxury to be able to walk your setting and see buildings that are similar to the way they were in the timeframe you have chosen for your book.  That’s probably the biggest difference between my Alcatraz novels and my non-Alcatraz novels. 

I like writing other novels in between the series books because then I can come back to Alcatraz with the same excitement I had when I wrote the first book.  Having so much time elapse between books, isn’t a great marketing strategy.  But it is how I was able to make sure each book in the series was as compelling as Al Capone Does My Shirts.   

Finally, do you have any recent middle grade favorites you'd recommend people read (after they finish AL CAPONE THROWS ME A CURVE, that is)?

I love: One Crazy Summer, Goodbye Stranger, Hello, Universe, The Hired Girl. I can’t wait to get my hands on: Bob and Ghost Boys. 

Thanks for your time, Gennifer! Good luck with the new book and the ones to follow!

Thank you! 

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